Normally when I arrive in Saudi Arabia I have to be met by a male guardian, and I was quite surprised to arrive and find that I had sailed through customs without my minder, who was late. There are these new social freedoms for women and that was one such sign. (But you were assigned a minder anyway?) Yes, but that I could make it through customs without him was significant for me. When he then drove me into town, we chatted about some of these changes. The driver was very disapproving and thought these changes were signs of a social breakdown in Saudi Arabia. (What was he worried about?) this driver was concerned that by allowing for more social freedoms, men and women would be more promiscuous. He blamed these changes on the US and President Bush and was worried about social chaos in Saudi Arabia. (Why did he blame Bush?) Bush has been in Saudi Arabia a month earlier and since 9/11, the US has been pressuring Saudi Arabia to reform politically and socially. (What else were you able to see of other changes?) While I was there the government passed a very controversial law allowing women to check into hotels and apartments on their own without a male guardian. Women are seeing that as a sign of additional rights. Women still cannot drive but that ban may soon be lifted. King Abdullah is a relatively liberal ruler by Saudi standards and has said he does not oppose women driving, but he wants society to accept it first. So within the next year, this should change, but it will not apply to all women and they won't be allowed to drive during all hours of the day. (So when you see these changes, what's the backlash?) Clearly there's a resistance and the religious police is that they're feeling pressured and are trying to exercise their power even more. (You mentioned a partitioned family section in a Starbucks and this is pretty common?) It's an effort to keep the genders separated so every coffee shop or restaurant has a men's section and then a family section where families can sit with male members because it's a very private society, so you can curtain off these sections. The religious police don't like this privacy and are worried that a lot of unmarried men and women are doing things they don't approve of so they monitor these sections closely. It's rumored that young Saudis do a lot of things behind those curtains, and there's a lot of sexual tension in such a society. (Presumably, the King is not blind to what's going on there. are these social reforms being followed by political reforms?) Well the King has been encouraging the social reforms, and he's been calling for political reforms but there's been less change there. a lot of journalists and columnists, friends of mine, have been banned by their papers or fired for having been critical of the lack of political reformers. So there are less signs of political freedoms and reforms and many people are worried about the lack of political openness.

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